Smoke from wildfires on the West Coast is causing red, fiery sunsets and air quality issues in Bloomington, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
There are 85 large active fires currently burning throughout the Western half of the United States, according to National Interagency Fire Center. As of July 26th, they have burned over 1.5 million acres.
In Canada, there are 263 uncontrolled, active fires as of July 21, according to Natural Resources Canada.
This fire season is already severe, and it is still early in the season Lester Wadzinksi, a retired employee from the U.S. Forest Service, said. Peak fire season often doesn’t happen until late summer and early fall.
The Western United States has been dealing with a prolonged drought and unprecedented heat waves. These weather patterns are caused by climate change and worsen wildfires, Wadzinksi said.
The IDEM issued a state-wide Air Quality Action Day July 21 and 22 because of the wildfire smoke, according to a press release from July 21.
It is unusual to have air quality alerts caused by fires thousands of miles away, Wadzinksi said.
The wildfires inject massive amounts of smoke into the atmosphere, IU Associate Professor of Chemistry Jonathan Raff said. Smoke and particles from the fires are carried into the air currents, and the jet stream takes it East, which includes Bloomington.
The fires generate soot, also known as particulate matter. Some of the particulate matter caused by the fires is PM 2.5, which is particulate matter that is 2.5 microns. These particles are a fraction of the size of human hair, Raff said.
PM 2.5 are so small that they can easily stay suspended in the air and scatter the blue light from the sun. The particles scatter blue light but don’t scatter yellow, orange and red light, so these colors shine through. This is what gives the sunsets and moon a red tint, Raff said.
High concentrations of PM 2.5 can also cause health issues. The small size of the particles allows them to penetrate a person’s lungs and enter the bloodstream, according to National Geographic.
People with cardiovascular problems or asthma are especially susceptible to health risks, Raff said. Long-term exposure to PM 2.5 is linked to cancer and reduced life expectancy for everyone.
“We’re probably going to see more and more air quality issues in Bloomington, especially as climate change worsens,” Raff said.
This year, air quality issues in Bloomington will likely persist until November, Raff said, but it also depends on the intensity of the fires and weather patterns.
Hazy sunsets indicate that there are pollutants in the air and should warn people that air quality might be poor in their area, Section Chief at IDEM, Office of Air Quality Mark Derf said.
Derf said the Canadian wildfires are a significant contributor to particulate matter in Indiana. He said he hadn’t seen this level of smoke in the area from wildfires in past years.
“The less exposure to polluted air, the less particles you’ll inhale into your lungs,” Derf said. “Everybody may want to limit their outdoor exposure.”